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Sacramento community college program helps formerly incarcerated students find opportunity, education

Sacramento Bee - 6/10/2024

If you ask Brandon Fellows where he learned the most in his life, he’ll point to his time spent on the streets or when he was incarcerated.

After he was released, he enrolled at Sacramento City College when he was 35.

There, he found and helped build a community of acceptance — the Re-Emerging Scholars program, a cohort-based learning program for formerly incarcerated students.

Along the way, he found a happiness he thought was gone through academics.

“I felt like that kid again, just like able to learn, able to grow,” said Fellows, who was first incarcerated when he was 16. “That was something that I had lost for so long. I felt like my life was at a standstill and I wasn’t going to be able to progress. But that’s what education became for me in the long run.”

Through Re-Emerging Scholars, Fellows discovered a second chance within higher education, an opportunity to redeem himself. Fellows was one of the founding students of the Re-Emerging Scholars program in 2018. The program originally started out as the college’s sociology club. But upon learning many of its members, and sociology students, were formerly incarcerated, its faculty advisers transitioned the club into a program to help them navigate structural issues in higher education.

“We knew this was a big issue impacting a lot of our students,” said Nicholas Miller, one of the program’s faculty founders. “... It was grounded in research for us to dive into this.”

Healing academic trauma for formerly incarcerated students

Programs like Re-Emerging Scholars seek to heal a formerly incarcerated person’s experience with education, said Jeff Knorr, the current faculty coordinator for Re-Emerging Scholars. Often, those who end up incarcerated have a traumatic experience with academics. They’re labeled as a “bad kid” because they struggle in school or were excessively punished.

The school to prison pipeline, which refers to nationwide policies that pushes at-risk children into the juvenile and incarceration system, has also contributed to academic trauma. Overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers and poor funding results in the failure to meet a student’s education needs. As a result, students become disengage and drop out, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I’d like to remember that everybody who’s got a mug shot, also has a third grade school picture where they’re a smiling kid,” Knorr said. “And somewhere between the third grade picture and the mug shot, things went awry.”

Re-Emerging Scholars is built on asset based learning approaches. Instead of dwelling on a student’s deficits, the program seeks to utilizes their strengths, said Miller.

“They are so many wonderful skill sets and knowledge sets that (students) have that are applicable on the outside, on a college campus and in the workplace,” Miller said. “We are just trying to reframe that into a more positive lens and think about how they can be productive, pro social, and make use of those skills.”

Re-Emerging Scholars provides services that assists by providing counselors who help students with enrollment and financial aid; connect students to emergency funding and scholarships; and offer peer-to-peer mentoring. The program also supports justice-impacted students, those who have an immediate family member who is incarcerated.

After being released, students may not have access to a vehicle, the money to afford college and face unstable housing and food insecurities.

Reentering society and starting college can feel overwhelming in itself, said Molly Stafford, the director of the Prison and Reentry Education Program for the Los Rios Community College District. Programs like Re-Emerging Scholars give formerly incarcerated students a place to start.

“Sometimes things we take for granted as easy to navigate, are not,” Stafford said. “The things that we might feel are easily accessible may not be.”

Studies have shown higher education is a powerful component in combating recidivism rates. In California, a study from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found formerly incarcerated individuals are likely to re-offend by 41%.

But for formerly incarcerated individuals who participate in higher education programs like Re-Emerging Scholars, the recidivism rate is smaller, if not non-existent. A report from Project Rebound, a program for formerly incarcerated students attending at California State University campus, had a recidivism rate of 0%, meaning none of their students in 2016 to 2017 reoffended system wide.

The same study showed these students maintained a grade point average of 3.0, and 87% of graduates secured a full time job or admissions into a graduate program.

Throughout his time as a student, Fellows became an ambassador for the program at the University of California, Berkeley, where he later transferred to.

Today, Fellows helps students who were just like him. He works with Incarceration to College, a program with UC Berkeley that creates pathways to higher education for the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and those affected by the incarceration system.

“There are so many formerly incarcerated students that are interested in a college career,” Fellows said. “I feel that it is very important to have that space for those that do. If it wasn’t for having that space, and having the ability to create that space with those professors, I wouldn’t have continued the work I do.”

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